More Than Word(s)

Ways to deal with MS Word documents using Linux and tocreate platform-independent documents.
More Than Word(s)

Ways to deal with MS Word documents using Linux and to create platform-independent documents.

by Jan Schaumann

We are told that Microsoft Word files can be viewed in any text editor, which probably is why so many people insist on sending even simple text documents as big Word attachments: “These download files are in Microsoft Word 6.0 format. After unzipping, these files can be viewed in any text editor, including all versions of Microsoft Word, WordPad and Microsoft Word Viewer” (from Microsoft's web site). How often do you receive an e-mail with a Word document attached because the sender simply assumes that everyone uses Microsoft Word (presuming they think about it at all)? Not only is it dangerous for anyone actually using Word to open attachments that might possibly contain macroviruses, but for anyone not using any of Microsoft's products, they have become a real nuisance. Actually, even people who do have MS Word need to make sure they have the latest version (and possibly buy an upgrade) because the discrepancies between the various versions are so large that sometimes Word can't read Word. This article tries to make your (office) life a bit easier by elaborating on the various possibilities of dealing with these dreaded documents.

Short of rejecting any documents not in standard format (more on this later), there is no optimal way of dealing with MS Word documents in Linux. As mentioned above, sometimes even Word can't read Word. There are, however, a number of approaches to opening most documents and even preserving the format.

There are the full-fledged word processors (very similar to Microsoft Word), a few file converters and some rather unconventional means of extracting the information out of a .doc file. Depending on your needs, you may choose different solutions in different situations.

Big Words

If you need to do a lot of word processing and often exchange documents with coworkers, you most certainly will want to install a complete office suite. An office suite comes with, among other things, a word processor that lets you read (and sometimes write) various MS Word formats, even though they all have their own document formats as well. The most common office suites available for Linux are Applixware Office, Corel WordPerfect Office 2000, KOffice and StarOffice (OpenOffice).

Applixware Office

Of all the above, Applixware Office is the only one not available at no cost. However, Applix was kind enough to provide me with a copy of their software for this article (retail price is $99 US). I received a few colorful boxes containing a copy of Applixware Office, Applixware Words (standalone) and Applixware Spreadsheets (standalone). The Office package came with a beautiful handbook, something that I would certainly appreciate, once I set it up.

Eager to test the new software, I attempted to install Applixware Words, following the instructions in the manual. As I run Debian, I do not mind the fact that the instructions to install per RPM are missing a step (you need to change the directories once more to find the RPM-install script, which was not mentioned), and I happily executed the setup binary.

At first, things seemed to go smoothly, but then closed-software practices took their toll. There appears to be a small bug in the install scripts that made it impossible for me to install the software. When I attempted to install into /opt/applix (as suggested by the program), the error log told me after the failed installation that it apparently tried to install to /optapplix, even though it created /opt/applix.

This would be just a minor nuisance if the user was able to edit the install script, but as this is closed software, there was nothing I could do. I tried /opt/applix and a few other tricks, but to no avail.

Due to unmet dependencies (on a Debian system, it appears as if I did not have any of the most basic RPMs installed) the RPM install fails as well, so that in my last attempt to install Applixware Words, I generated .deb packages from the RPMs using alien:

mkdir /tmp/applix
cp cdrom/RPMS/*.rpm /tmp/applix/
cd /tmp/applix/
alien *.rpm
dpkg -i --force-overwrite *.deb

This seemed to install the packages, but running the application led to several errors. I finally gave up and wrote an e-mail to Applix to inquire about these problems.

While word of mouth has it that this is a solid product—an advantage of this suite is that its native file format is plain ASCII text with the specifications freely available from the web site, which makes it easy to write import/export filters—these kinds of problems are rather frustrating.

The advantage of having a nice printed manual with a (supposedly) fine product is, in my opinion, outweighed by the fact that it's closed software. I can't go in and try to fix errors myself, which leaves me helpless.